Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Food Journey

Food is fuel but to many of us, it is something so much more. Food is an experience, a lifestyle, a religion. Food conjures up every emotion on the human gamut. It’s a big deal. So when one’s food environment is rapidly changed, emotions can run wild, whether for the better or worse.

When I decided to move to Korea over a year ago, I knew life would be different. Not everyone speaks English here – I would need to learn some Korean. Korean society operates under Confucian ideals – I would need to adjust (or at least temper) my severely individual, Western outlook. And of course, the food would be very different – my palate would require a few adjustments. However, this final difference proved much harder than I expected.

As someone well versed in international travel and culture, I embrace chances to learn about other places, learn new words, meet different people, and try strange foods. Korea would be different, though. This wasn’t a three week jaunt across the globe to some exotic locale where I would be constantly on the go seeing the sites, embracing the new flavors; I was moving to Korea. My life for twelve months was to be based in an entirely new culture very different from my own. And boy would the flavors change.

I’m extremely accustomed to the luxury that is the American specialty supermarket. I absolutely adore shops like The Fresh Market, Whole Foods, and local specialty stores but despite my elitism I equally embrace that enormous Kroger Marketplace and the sprawling, gorgeous produce section of Meijer. We are lucky to have such unbridled access to quite literally the world of food. Feeling like Mediterranean? Why there is an antipasti bar and wide selection of hummus to choose from. How about Mexican? Avocados, cilantro, and tomatillo abound. Perhaps more in the mood for a bit of a baked indulgence? Every store I’ve ever seen in the US has all the fixin’s for a lovely batch of oatmeal cookies or even the most delicate of meringues. This was the life I knew. Anything my taste buds desired was only a short drive away. And then I moved to Korea.

Korea has a well-established local cuisine. Some of its specialties are better than others (as it goes with any culture) but tasty dishes abound; that is, if you enjoy a particular handful of flavors and ingredients. Rice is king. This is a well-known fact across much of Asia but it is especially true in Korea. The word for rice, (bap), is by no coincidence also the word for meal. After eating my fair share of plain rice with beef, plain rice with vegetables, plain rice with soup, I began to get damn tired of plain rice. Well, in Korea that isn’t exactly an option. It accompanies any soup and comprises the bulk of many Korean traditional dishes (bibimbap, kimbap, boggumbap, chobap, and so on). Rice is something I eventually had to come to terms with, and now our relationship is rather pared back but still fairly amicable. But rice has a queen, a very proud, loud queen that really stands as the true symbol of Korean culinary culture. Her name is kimchi.

Fermented cabbage soaked in large clay pots with chili paste, garlic, ginger, scallions, and fish sauce does not sound at all delicious. And the first time I tried it, it was probably one of the more unpalatable things I’ve ever put in mouth. Kimchi is so vital to Korean culture that when heavy rains in 2010 caused massive cabbage crop failures, the South Korean government rushed to lower agricultural tariffs to prevent a veritable cultural disaster. Without kimchi, there is no Korea.

For many months, I snubbed that little plate full of wilted, pickled Napa cabbage and allowed my Korean friends (or my more accepting foreign friends) to polish off the side dish. And then all of a sudden, one day whilst rummaging through my fridge I had a craving for a very specific flavor. I stopped what I was doing and pondered what that flavor was. Then a light bulb went off and, to my horror, I realized what food I longed for: the dreaded kimchi. Only it wasn’t so dreadful anymore. From that point on, I felt myself enjoying kimchi, remarking on whether this was a particularly good or bad batch, and finding myself ordering seconds. What had happened? Was I finally in Korea for too long? Or had I been in Korea just long enough?

I noticed myself perking up when I found a recipe involving kimchi on one of the many foodie sites I frequent. Kimchi quesadillas? Why, yes please! Kimchi on pizza? Why this could bring a nice amount of umami to such a standard dish. What had happened to me? Even my friends ask who I was and what had I done to Erin? She was there, all right, just with a newfound hankering some old, spicy cabbage. Now I am proud to report that this girl has a whole package of kimchi in the fridge and sometimes I take out a few pieces to snack on cold or perhaps toss in the frying pan for a few minutes to take that unique flavor to the next level of satisfying.  And I am ok with it.

Every culture bases its cuisine around some carbohydrate, and this carb generally manifests itself in the form of pasta and/or rice. Since it is quite clear where rice fits into the Korean culinary canon, it is important for me to give noodles their due respect. I adore pasta and it is amazing in so many ways. It is versatile, delicious, and filling. One of my most coveted comfort foods is Pad Thai: the perfect marriage of quintessentially Asian flavors coupled with the satisfying base of those supple rice noodles that absorb the brilliant tastes of the dish’s main ingredients of tamarind and fish sauce. So where do noodles fit in here in Korea?

Noodles abound across the Korean peninsula, which is lucky for this girl. As you will find pastas made from your basic wheat to the more colorful and nuanced spinach or potato varietals in Italy, Korean noodles are equally as varied. Kalguksu are you’re basic hand-cut wheat flour noodles. These tender tendrils are usually found in abundance floating in a savory broth along with scallions and other seasonal vegetables. A hot bowl of this is akin to a chicken noodle soup (minus the chicken) and warms you up from the inside out on a cold day during the brutal Korean winters. The best of kalguksu is served up in traditional markets across the country that feature rows upon rows of noodle soup vendors specializing in this simple yet highly satisfying soupy dish.

Although I heartily enjoy a steamy bowl of knife cut noodles merrily swimming in a rich broth, nothing could be less appetizing on a sweltering summer day in the middle of the hottest city on the peninsula. See, in Daegu, we live in a veritable bowl.  Surround by mountains and established in a low valley, Daegu traps in heat and humidity and refuses to let any of it escape. This unfortunate geography renders the city beyond miserable on the average summer day. Even in summer, though, people still get hungry. Enter naengmyeon. When I first learned of this dish I immediately dismissed it as absolutely disgusting. Naengmyeon is a large steel bowl of chewy buckwheat noodles immersed in an ice cold bath of vinegary, tangy broth garnished with cucumbers (which I always pick out), crunchy Korean pear, sometimes a little bit of a kimchi, a few dashes of the red pepper paste gochujang (or a more liberal serving, as I prefer), and half of a hard boiled egg. They are cold noodles. Cold noodles are what I eat after coming home at 4am after a long night and realizing I have leftover macaroni and cheese and my late night munchies can’t be bothered with microwaving anything. Why would I ever soberly choose to eat cold noodles that aren’t pasta salad? So I (quite foolishly) avoided the dish for months.

I honestly cannot remember when I first actually sampled my first naengmyeon. All I remember that it was infatuation at first taste. Naengmyeon may be one of the most brilliant dishes I have ever sampled. Refreshing, oh so flavorful, exceedingly filling, and rather healthy. It may well be the perfect dish. I never would have considered craving a bowl full of ice cubes and noodles, but these July days that make me question if I live in a city or a sauna find me longing for, day dreaming of, a silvery bowl that is the chalice cradling the manna of summer. Even as I write this I find myself lusting after that cold, chewy paradise.

Following my honeymoon stage in Korea, my intense disenchantment with the seemingly uninspired state of sustenance in my new home grew to a worrisome level. My comments regarding my life’s most recent state of culinary affairs became downright rude and impossibly cynical. Kimchi became the source of extreme anger and rice (oh the horror!) became the bane of my lunchtime ritual. Rice again? How inventive. And then the day came when I sat in my apartment hacking away on my keyboard some scathing review of my afternoon meal (in what universe does it make sense to serve spaghetti AND rice together in the same meal), my taste buds began to tickle and call out for a familiar yet strange flavor. Could it be? I wanted kimchi? And that is the day that everything changed. I no longer thoroughly resented the bright red little dish of pickled greenery placed in front of me in lieu of the Western breadbasket. No longer did I brush it away, dismissed as a complete waste of precious table space. I picked up my chopsticks and nibbled happily away at the most Korean of condiments, until I found the chili-stained ramekin empty. And I asked for more.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On the Way Home...

My students have a bad habit of following me home. They've figured out where my building is but have yet to divine which apartment is mine (which may prove difficult to keep hidden as my kitchen window looks out onto a fairly well-traversed alleyway). Upon exiting school, I was greeted by a gaggle of my former 6th grade boys who are now in middle school.

After we parted ways, one of my favorite 4th grade girls (one who is persistent in her quest to come to my home) stopped to chat. Thankfully she headed off towards her house, which is in the opposite direction of mine. And then just when I thought I was in the clear came an, "ERIN TEACHAAAA!!!" Of course it was the first boy who ever followed me home.

As I approached the foot of the small hill up to my building I looked at him and, thinking this a perfect opportunity to try out some newly learned Korean, said "Kedario." This is a word I recently learned during class. Apparently it's used frequently in tele-dramas, but it comes out more like "Kedariariariariario!" accompanied by a tear-streaked face and outstretched arm. It means "Stay."

He then turned to me and without hesitating said, "I am not dog!"

I almost lost it he was so funny! I had never thought about it like that before. So I retorted, "No, but you are student!" He giggled and skipped away with his buddies. He knew why I told him to stay. I was just surprised he answered me with a full English sentence (the small grammar mistake is forgivable - articles are rough!). Now he has no excuse to be so silent in English class. Man I'm going to miss these kids.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Things to Look Forward To

Korea is festival central. And as a temporary resident and avid traveler, I feel the need to soak in as much Korean culture and life as I can. So here is my short list of festivals, events, and to-dos I am looking forward to in the coming months, before I return to the states:
  • Re-visit Andong: Go to Jim-dak Alley (찜닭) and eat the most delicious Korean food from the source. Visit the Hahoe Folk Village where visitors can take part in and catch a glimpse of traditional Korean life, crafts, and ceremonies.
  • 1st Birthday Party: My coteacher's adorable baby girl is turning 1 year old in May. As is customary in Korea, there is a big party (called 돌/dol) during which a special ceremony (the 돌자비/doljabee) is performed. The ceremony entails placing the baby at a table filled with objects such as books, money, scissors, brush, thread, etc. The baby then chooses an item from the table. The chosen item is said to indicate what kind of person the baby will grow to be - if the baby picks up the book, they will be a scholar.
  • Seongju 10k: My second 10k race, my third race in Korea, and my preparation run for the big Jeju 10k in June! We also get a pair of sneakers and a box of chamhoe melons!
  • Jeju Marathon Festival: As mentioned, I am running the Jeju 10k with a friend. We will also be cheering on our brave friend Bridgette as she runs her first FULL MARATHON! Go Bridge! We will be enjoying the weekend of sun and island life, too. 
  • Boryeang Mud Festival: It's a Korean version of Spring Break only covered in MUD! This should be an excellent time. Will absolutely post about this. 
  • Temple Stay: I've heard great things from friends who have done this. You stay for a night or two in a Buddhist temple and live life like a monk does. This includes wearing the temple uniform, performing the 108 bows, eating traditional temple food, meditating, learning about Buddhism, and enjoying the other arts of the temple (this can range from calligraphy to martial arts). I will likely go to the Golgulsa Temple in Gyeongju, as it is close by and a friend gave it positive reviews. (The temple also practices a super cool martial art called Sunmudo.)
There will of course be a few more things in store for me here before I leave but these are the big ones. If you'd like to check out the other festivals going on in Korea year-round, check out the official Korea Festival website.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Night on Cafe Street

Or that's what I'll call it anyhow. Streets in Korea, well in Daegu at least, are named after what they offer. In this strange economic model where businesses are heavily concentrated in a small area and somehow manage to survive, it's a rather amusing naming mechanism. For example, on my walk to downtown, I pass Motorcycle Street, Towel Street, and Jewelry Street. A large sign indicates that you are about to embark upon a thoroughfare lined entirely in motorcycle shops. Other notable streets about town are Cell Phone Street, Car Parts Street, and Puppy Street. So I thought, what better name for a street over-saturated in coffee shops than Cafe Street? Make it so, Number One.

My favorite brunch spot, daily bread, is found on Cafe Street. Also on the street are multiple modern, artsy-looking coffee shops offering everything from simple cappuccinos to full meals. On this particular spring evening, I planned to dedicate a few hours to finishing a book I recently began. (It was David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day. No, I don't usually like Sedaris. And though I didn't love this particular selection, though a few of the anecdotes were entertaining, I set out to finish what I began.) After a few strolls back and forth down the length of the street, I settled on a particular cafe that I'd stopped into before on my Quest for Waffles, only to discover that there were, in fact, no waffles to be had. However, they did offer what I sought at the moment, which was an excellent cup of coffee.

Khaldi Coffee is the most legit coffee house I've seen in Korea. You enter through a glass door in an all-glass facade: very modern, very chic. The interior is dimly lit (which I found unfortunate for my reading, but found just the right spot where the light was sufficient.) Pretty perfect place for a date. The high vaulted ceiling is reminiscent of an old Western lodge, with large beams spanning the length of the roof and really opening up the interior. I sat down at a table near the window and in front on the roasting room (yes! they roast their own beans in house!). I was given a menu and perused through the copious offerings of hand drip coffee made with beans from around the world, a true rarity in Daegu.
Cafe interior.
In-house coffee bean roaster. It look a bit like K-9.
Being particularly inept at making any decision when it comes to comestibles, I asked the server which coffee he would recommend, which was the best. He pointed to a offering that cost a rather hefty 7,000 won. For a cup of coffee. That's like $6.50 for a cup of brewed coffee. "Smell is flower." "Ethiopia, you know?" "Koke, you know?" I didn't know, but nodded in understanding despite my ignorance. After all, he was rather cute. But I thought what the hell, I'm here to try what they do best. So I ponied up the won and returned to my table to await my coffee which better be sprinkled with gold shavings, or at least come with a damn cookie. While feeling the initial pangs of buyer's remorse, I read to pass the time until my joe arrived.
Koke Organic: Take One
It did so about 12 minutes later in a small but lovely orange tea cup with gold filigree decoration on the inside. It was a proper, beautiful tea cup filled with what I hoped would be the best coffee I'd ever tasted. The server awaited my response, reassuring me that the "smell is flower."  I feigned smelling the said notes of flowers (all I smelled was coffee and money). I took a sip. It was good coffee, not the best, but good. I sucked it up and returned to my book.

I tried earnestly to savor the precious few ounces of coffee before they got cold. As I reluctantly downed the last sip, I thought, well, I guess I can still hang here for awhile and finish my book. As I enjoyed my personal time, I noticed a man enter the roasting room behind my table and set to work crafting blends of coffee. After he got through a few batches, he stopped by my table and asked, "Refill?" I was stunned and relieved. I said, "OK!" And after a bit of confusion and consultation with a server who spoke partial English, I thought we were in business for some more coffee. I was going to get my money's worth! Well, sort of. About 15 minutes passed and still no more coffee in my little orange demitasse. Ten pages later, the server arrived with a large, red, gold-rimmed cup of hot coffee. Thank you, Coffee Gods! Happier with my investment, I set back into my book with a renewed spirit.
Refill of Sighs
After I finished my reading, I snapped a few photos of the establishment (which had quickly filled up with patrons seeking coffee touched by the hands of Midas himself, or at least which bore such a price tag), and left with every intention of returning. Only next time I'll be sure to go with a more affordable espresso.

Sharing Is Caring

My kids drive me crazy sometimes. Like when they won't stop chatting away in the middle of class or insist on following me home and begging to take a look around my apartment. But most of the time, they are complete gems.

I never pictured myself teaching elementary school children. Most of those who know me were likely shocked when they heard I was to be an English teacher for small children. "Erin, children? Really?" But I've grown to love it, despite the occasional bad lunch and smelly classroom. One thing in particular never fails to brighten up my day.

Sharing is an intrinsic part of Korean culture, something anyone who has sat down to a proper Korean meal will realize. Small gifts, usual snacks, are commonplace. The classroom is no exception to this cultural trait. My students love to share with me, whether it's a small piece of candy or a bite from the partially-nibbled tubed ham they happen to be snacking on. I can't even begin to count the number of times I've been offered partially chewed upon cookies, but the thought is still sweet. I've received numerous drawings, slips of papers saying they love me, small cookies, candies, stickers, and even vitamins.

Found this on my desk during Winter Camp. From a lovely little 1st grade girl.

These little tokens are usually offered out of the grubby palm of a 4th grader and it presents me with a sanitary dilemma. Kids love to stick their fingers up their nose, in their mouth, back up their nose, into other people's noses, and highly dislike washing their hands. This is not an assumption, but a fact based on extensive observation. When presented with a vitamin chew from a starry-eyed 6th sixth grader, I graciously accept the gift and place it on my desk, making it seem I will save it for a later occasion. To the extensive illnesses I've caught while working down at the 초 등학교 (cho dung hakyo), I cannot risk ingesting the precious presents given to me by my adoring students. Regardless of the fact that I cannot enjoy most of these gifts, their generosity and sincerity always lifts my spirits, even if they have sunk into the depths of "squid and dried fish for lunch" depression. I've fallen into the habit of depositing each snack into the middle drawer of my filing cabinet, which now bursts a rainbow plethora of sugary snacks and Konglish notes. I only have to slide it open to remember why I am here in Korea, and that people here really do care.
Translation: Wavy hair hair shop. Erin Teacher I love you. From one of my 4th graders, Miss Yu Bin.
I will always remember these students as the kindest and most generous I've yet encountered. Though many of them despise the study of English, they have managed to get past the fact that I am the harbinger of phonics lessons and see me as as the "Sam" (teacher) they love despite my inability to understand their words.

Never underestimate the meaning of a half-eaten cookie.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Daegu-BETTER, Always

Here in Daegu, at least among many of my friends, we have a superiority complex. A very well-founded superiority complex, to be sure. Daegu is in the center of Korea, the hub of transportation. This makes it easy to travel anywhere in the country with extreme ease. We are an hour from multiple beaches! Daegu is in a valley surrounded by lovely mountains providing excellent hiking and touring. We have a thriving downtown with bars and restaurants galore. If you want a change of scenery, we have 2 uni areas to explore. And we have all this at a cheaper price than Seoul or Busan. Things are, from what I've found, a bit more affordable in Daegu. And did I mention our transit system is pretty excellent? Bus and metro fare is 950won with a transit card - that's less than dollar a ride! With free transfers! We have a great mix of the old and the new.

Really I could continue on forever on why I think Daegu is the best. This is, after all, Daegu-Better. What I want to highlight here, though, is my appreciation toward the city of Daegu, the Daegu Sports Council, and the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federation, hosting their World Championships in Daegu this August). From a tipsy conversation outside the Viniroo cocktail-to-go stand when I agreed to run the Daegu 10k, to this past Sunday, I finally made the journey to my first real running race. And it was amazing.
That picture is exactly how I felt on race day. (The Korean says: Daegu Marathon Club)
After months of training, and then letting all of that work go to waste due to a month-long illness, the Daegu 10k on Sunday, April 10th 2011 came. I am not a runner and I kind of hate running but I stuck to my goal and ran this race with my best friends in Korea (couldn't have done without you guys). My personal goal was to finish the race under the 1.5 hour time limit. I did, although not by much but I am happy enough. There is always next time.

But my appreciation for the people who ran this race came about 2 weeks before game day. I was hanging around my apartment on a Saturday morning, sipping my coffee when I got a call from an unknown cell phone number. I answered and could hear the Korean spoken through my receiver coming form my hallway. I hesitantly opened my door to find a delivery man outside clutching a silvery package. I hadn't ordered anything to my house. Was this a mistake? The man, seeing my confusion, made some running gestures and said "maraton!" Ah, this was stuff for the run!

I eagerly accepted my swag and ran back into my apartment to tear open the pack like a kid on Christmas Day. Inside held my race number and tracking chip, a program for the event, and a backpack! Nice!

Fast-forward to race day. I met up with my friends and fellow runners before the race bright and early Sunday morning. The area was packed with people! Although the other runners were mainly Korean, I've never felt more welcome in such a big setting in my life. People left and right wanted to snap pictures with us and spirits soared high the whole day. As a very novice runner, I lagged behind my better trained friends and footed the race alone. Or so I thought. The entire race course was lined with Koreans holding up hands for high fives, offering encouraging cheers, snapping photos, screaming "fighting!," and a wealth of other encouragements. These guys definitely kept me going when I felt down and out.

Also to my rescue were the random Korean men who would run up beside me and try to keep me running their pace. As a foreigner in Korea it's usually hard to feel part of something bigger besides the expat community. During the race, we were all people just running together. It was a welcome unparalleled to any I've experienced in Korea thus far. The cheers and encouragement lasted all the way to the end of the race, when an ajumma pushed her way through people crowding the water table to hand me a bottle of water.

Once I reconnected with my friends, the welcome continued! At the snack stand, we got our snacks along with a participant medal (I was extremely excited about this, I haven't gotten a medal since college!) which I eagerly hung around my neck. After we were all be-medaled the guys and gals manning the snack area, a self-proclaimed ajusshi, an adorable middle schooler from Ulsan we met at the start of the race, and other various race-goers were so excited to snap pictures with us. I felt like I belonged there, that I wasn't some crazy foreigner but I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Photo courtesy of Miss Bridgette, my inspiration for running and the one who got me to run in the first place.
With the cool boy from Ulsan. He found us after the race!
So thank you Daegu and everyone involved in the 2011 Daegu International Marathon Race for making this waygook feel not so waygooky. I didn't know I could be so happy after running that far, but you made it possible. And I will never forget it. Daegu-Better, all the way.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

뻑이가요!

I love my 6th graders. They are my oldest students, meaning that they've been with me since the beginning. They've witnessed my awkward transition into elementary education, let alone into Korea. They've also become my one-stop shop for answers on Korean culture. Of course my co-teachers can help me out with issues regarding daily life and language, but pop culture is an entirely different story.

I have a bit of a crush (as does every female in Korea) on the Big Bang rapper/"singer" T.O.P.
This guy. Is so hot.


So anyhow, he launched a solo-ish career with fellow Big Bang-er, GD (or G-Dragon). This KHip-Hop duo pumps out some excellent beats that you literally cannot escape in Korea. For example, while shopping for an hour on Saturday, I heard their song "High High" literally 8 times in different stores.

But my favorite release is their more recent "Knock Out," or 뻑이가요. It has an awesome beat and the video is wonderfully hilarious (Segways, puppies, and tanks!). However, I had no freaking clue what 뻑이가요 meant. Sure, the translation was "knock out" but what exactly does that entail? I posed the question to my co-teacher and was met by a blank stare. This needed to be handed over to the students.

So, after 5th period English class, I asked a gaggle of 6th grade girls about my linguistic query. They debated for a moment, giggled ferociously, then began to explain what it meant. "First time meet, love, big!" Ah yes. But in order to convey the meaning more accurately, they formed hearts with their hands, placed their hands in front of their faces, and began to move the heart forward and backward. Kind of like this:

 

And now I know, thanks to my very with-it, in-the-know 6th graders, I now know that 뻑이가요 means, essentially, "love struck," that a person a total "knock out" and you become instantly smitten. So pretty much my feeling when I first saw T.O.P. at that YG Family concert back in December...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Costco: An Adventure in Side Dishes

Koreans adore their side dishes. No Korean meal is complete without at least a couple tiny dishes of pickles, kimchi, and myriad other salty/fishes selections. Anyone who has sat down to a traditional Korean meal (usually sitting on the floor), is well versed in the art of side dishes. It is not uncommon to have a tiny table completely packed with an army of little white, plastic dishes filled with at least 3 kinds of kimchi, hot peppers, some sort of fermented fish, some sort of dried fish, bean sprouts, pickled radishes, pickled cucumbers, japchae, onions, and on and on and on. So it makes perfect sense that when Koreans are faced with a dining experience sans side dishes, they will improvise and find some way to make those side dishes happen.

Enter the Costco cafeteria.

Anyone who has paid a visit to a Costco or Sam's Club in the US knows that the price clubs also feature small cafeterias selling cheap, but delicious, American favorites like pizza and hot dogs. Costco in Korea is no exception. No trip to the Daegu Costco would be complete without a visit to the cafeteria for a slice or two of large, hot, American pizza.

You enter the dining area and are greeted by hordes of Koreans chomping down on reasonably priced pizza, hot dogs, chicken/beef bakes (giant breadsticks stuffed with cheese and beef or chicken), and clam chowder (I still don't know about this one). But something seems strange. At first I couldn't put my finger on it. However, after I ordered my slice of combo pizza and filled up my 500 won Coke Zero, I realized what was off kilter.

As I passed the condiments station (you know, the place where you gets onions, ketchup, and mustard for your hot dogs), I noticed a queue for the onion dispenser and a young high school girl grappling with the metal container. She was struggling to make the dispenser give her more onions to augment her already veritable mountain of diced condiments. After she was satisfied with the amount of onions, she moved on to the ketchup and mustard containers and proceeded to douse her onion Everest in sodium-packed condiments. This was strange to me. Did she and her friends order a bunch of hot dogs and want to bypass individually dressing them? Surely this was the reason.

The pile of onions, ketchup, and mustard. Um, where are the hot dogs?
I was wrong. Oh but was I wrong!

Fighting my way into the only empty seat left in the dining area, I noticed the diners to either side of me also sported their very own dunes of reddish-yellowish onions. And they were tucking right into these. I had to stop myself from visibly gagging but I forced myself to finish off my pizza with blinders on to avoid the salty gaze of those horrible hillocks. After an intensely uncomfortable meal, I headed toward the trash bins to dispose of my plate and on the way saw that every single person in the establishment laid claim to their very own plate piled high with hot dog dressings. And they were devouring every morsel.
The side dish from hell!
And thus ends the story of Korean ingenuity in the face of a complete dearth of side dishes. Although I personally cannot even fathom how disgusting shoveling spoonfuls upon spoonfuls of the stuff into my mouth would taste (let alone the aftertaste - onions stick with you!), the Korean patrons of the Daegu Costco see it as a treat of sorts. Perhaps they didn't notice the way the onion dispenser disallowed them from building their pile of onions with ease (it's a crank shaft dispenser that allows only a small amount of diced toppings out at a time - perfect for hot dogs!). And maybe this is what they think is commonplace for price club dining across America (Western cuisine is extremely fashionable). I just hope this trend never catches on in the US. Ever.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Washing Machine Story: Part Deux

I am having a very hard time coming to terms with the wealth of talking washing machine stories in my 6th grade English book. Ok, so the first installation of "A Washing Machine Story" was fine. Although intensely bizarre and entirely unrelated to the curriculum in any way, I could tolerate it. But then flipping to today's lesson and discovering this was yet another story about a talking washing machine giving positive reinforcement to the family's laboring was just too much for this waygook to take!

Here is our riveting sequel:

"My dad's socks are in the washing machine.
My dad's socks smell really bad. I know why.
He works hard every day for our family.
He puts his socks in the washing machine.
It smiles and says, 'Thank you for working hard.'"

Is this washing machine a cheeky bastard or what? Also, how does this kid just know
why his dad's socks are in the washer. Maybe he stepped in mud? Maybe he went on a run? There are myriad options that could explain the reason behind his sullied socks. But beyond the kid's implied psychic abilities and the washer's insolent attitude, why are we concentrating so very much on smelly socks in a chapter entitled, "Where is York Street?" This chapter focuses on giving and understanding directions (i.e.- The bank is behind the school. Turn left at the corner and go straight. The hospital is next to the Korean restaurant.)

Once again, I am entirely baffled by the obsession with a singular talking appliance. Now, if they were to switch it up a bit and concentrate on perhaps a talking oven or talking rice cooker or talking toaster (a la The Brave Little Toaster, a fantastic movie) these authors are so lazy that they can't even come up with another common household appliance! Needless to say, I am dreading Chapter 3's Story Time. I just looked. There are 4 washing machine stories. FOUR.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

West Meets East: Surprising Finds in Chosen

I know I've commented on this matter before but I wanted to thoroughly examine the issue. Before hopping that plane to Korea, many a waygook is faced with the issue of what they cannot get in Korea. Will I be able to be deodorant? Will they have the snacks I like? Will they have peanut butter? These are normal concerns as everyone is used to their comforts (foods and otherwise). Koreans worry if other countries sell kimchi and chili paste.

I was told I wouldn't be able to find bread (so wrong) or coffee (even more wrong) in the Land of the Morning Calm. These are two basics that most Americans can't live without. However, I didn't really consider the availability of other Western options like cheese and dill pickles.This is my short list of things I was surprised to find in Korea, organized by store. (This is another generally informative post for those wanting to come to Korea or curious about what there is on offer in Chosen.)

·  Goldfish: This is by far my favorite chip/crack snack. I love the fishes cause they're so delicious! You can also find these at the store Olive Young which, on another note, is a fantastic store with tons of cosmetics AND scented candles. If you're into that kind of thing. (I've recently become a fan of the scented candle as my apartment tends to cling to that Eau du Daegu: a lovely mix of the rotting trash outside of my apartment and sewage gases.)
·  Peanut Butter: Skippy and the Lido brand. I'd never heard of Lido but it's American made, much cheaper than Skippy, comes in crunchy and smooth, and is delicious. You can also find PB at larger grocery stores. If you're really gung-ho on it, go to Costco and pick up a ginormous jar.
·  As mentioned in my Packing Guide, Tampax Pearl! I actually yelled to my friend down the aisle to show this find off.
·  Good wine: Homeplus has an excellent selection of wine from across the world and also offers a nice selection of decently priced wines ($7-9/bottle).

·  Costco is every foreigner's dream in Korea. It is truly a godsend for all of those Western cravings (although you can buy cases of kimchi, mandu, and soju but I'm not sure why you would want to). I'm going to just list these here, as they are all self-explanatory. Note: this is not exhaustive.
·  Cereal: Special K Red Berries, Honey Nut Cheerios, Kashi Go Lean Crunch, Quaker Instant Oatmeal
·  Snacks: Fruit Roll Ups, Nutri-Grain Bars, yogurt covered cherries, chocolate covered raisins/almonds, Veggie chips, tortilla chips, Snicker's ice cream bars, Western candy (alas, no Reese's)
·  Coffee: Starbucks Breakfast Blend, Starbucks Double Shot Espresso Drinks
·  Liquor: For some reason liquor is rather elusive in Korea. If you aren't in the market for rice wine/soju/beer then you should head to a department store or Costco. I bought a bottle of normally priced Tanqueray in Costco. They also sell Amarula, Baileys, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Absolut, brandy, cognac, and lots and lots of wines and champagnes! And if you're lucky, maybe you will find a liquor tasting (I only encountered a beer tasting, MGD.)
·  Misc: sour cream, Eggos, tortillas, Costco cakes/muffins/croissants/soft cookies(!), spices (these are cheap, too), capers, canned veggies, nifty salad dressing
·  Toiletries: lots of vitamins, shaving cream, Neutrogena lotion, Aveeno lotion, tampons, various brands of facial cleanser (Clean & Clear, Neutrogena, etc)
·   Cleaning supplies: Tide sticks!, Clorox wipes (well they are Kirkland brand but still do the trick), Swiffer
The damage that 3 foreigners can do at Costco.
The moral of this post is that you can easily find many of your Western comforts right here in Korea. Korea is not some exotic nor under-developed land that produces only kimchi and soju; it is a very well-developed nation that embraces both the traditional Korean and the international. Stores like Homeplus, Costco, and Emart are there to ease the homesickness of many a foreigner in Korea. If you want it badly enough, I am sure you can find it somewhere in Korea. And if not in the Korean stores, if you can find a friend in the military, you may be able to get it on base, otherwise search in Itaewon on website such as GMarket. The only thing I've encountered serious issues in obtaining are limes. Perhaps this will change come summertime.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Washing Machine Story



"Our washing machine is part of our family.
My dirty clothes are in the washing machine.
I played soccer with friends from different countries.
'Hurray!' My team won. But my clothes were dirty.
I put the clothes in the washing machine.
It said, 'Good job!.'"


This touching story is brought to you by my 6th grade Elementary School English textbook. For a bit of perspective, the chapter is entitled, "Where are you from?" with the key phrases "I'm from ____." and "It's on the ____ floor."

We are all still grappling with many important questions, such as: What does a washing machine have to do with ordinal numbers? Why is the washing machine talking? Can I claim my washing machine as a dependent on my taxes? Do I have to report my washing machine on my census form? Is my dryer also a part of my family? What about my George Foreman grill?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Suhvisuh Superlatives

I am a big fan of this Korean thing called Suhvisuh 서비스 (Service, for all of those not in Korea). This phenomenon involves copious amounts of free stuff with any size purchase. In the past, I've received service that ranges from the ok to the spectacular. Usually a service gift includes a free sample or two (you will quickly become accustomed to these in the myriad beauty shops across Korea), an extra apple tossed in, tissues, and maybe a small dish of pretzels (which, on another note, are called 쿠키 or cookies here). But then there are days when the little extra bit of service changes the mood of your entire day.

Best Service Ever
The service waffle. My friends and I decided we wanted wine one weekend evening and set out downtown to find this rarity hidden amongst the cheap beers and mixed drinks. Down the road from the foreign favorite watering hold Thursday party, we found Vin. Vin (meaning wine in French) is a cute spot that offers wine by the bottle (though the selection is very limited), sangria (yes!), and snacks. We ordered a pitched of red sangria. It was good, a bit too sweet but still enjoyable. We were having a lovely time just chatting and sipping our drinks. Then the unthinkable happened, one of the servers plopped down a giant waffle smothered in whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and nuts smack in the middle of our table.

"Suhvicuh," he said casually.

We were blown away. As three girls on a Friday night we immediately plowed into this free gargantuan treat. It tasted like cake. A waffle cake! A FREE waffle cake! We polished it off with no problem and vowed to return in hopes that more of these lay in our future. Thus ends the tale of the best service ever.
  
Most Useful Service
As hinted by the previous category, I really like wine. No. I LOVE wine. And it can be difficult to find good bottles at decent prices in Korea. Enter the saviour of all Westerns: Homeplus. On a routine trip to pick-up a jar of peanut butter and whatever else caught my eye, I stumbled into the wine section (this stumbling happens each time I go to Homeplus). There was a tasting. So I tasted. It was a Spanish red that was actually pretty good and on sale (!) so I tossed three bottles into my cart.

The young sales clerk then hands me two small boxes: a bottle stopper and a wine key. She read my mind! I currently lacked these necessary tools in my barren apartment (to be honest, I planned to use my Leatherman to open up the bottle). So I walked away not only with three bottles of good, well-priced wine but all the tools required to enjoy them.

Most Unexpected Service (a tie)
This story is a short one. I needed a garish color of nail polish to wear for my birthday party (it was Kpop themed). So I popped into a Beautiplex near my home to satisfy my cosmetic needs. After much consultation with the very sweet sales lady, I bought one bottle of nail polish and one color of eye shadow. I maybe spent 6,000\. At the checkout, the lady carefully placed my purchases into a bag. Then she proceeded to show me the other goodies I would walk away with: 2 boxes of cotton pads and a pair of ankle socks covered in pink hearts! It felt like an episode of Oprah's Favorite Things. Granted these gifts weren't of much consequence but I spent 5 bucks and left with socks. Cute socks!

The second unexpected service was yet another waffle. I decided to head downtown one afternoon to finish reading the horrible book Ender's Game at a local cafe. I'd read about one in particular called The Mount Coffee. I ordered a cappuccino and settled in to read the rest of this awful book. Just as I realized I was beginning to feel the initial pangs of hunger, BOOM! On my table, a quarter of a service waffle! With maple syrup even!

Cutest Service
I love coffee. So I was pretty excited to discover there is a small yet adorable coffee shop very close to my house. It is called Marshmallow. Now, the first time I visited the cafe I only ordered a take-out cappuccino (I just had x-rays from the hospital next door due to a sprained ankle - I wanted to get home ASAP). The woman who owns the shop is so sweet, she tried to give me cookies (read: pretzels) to go as a bit of service. I politely declined and took my cappuccino on the road.

Seeking caffeination one day afterschool, I decided to pay my nearby cafe a visit. I ordered another cappuccino and took a seat near the window. In a few moments, the woman brought me a tray laden with a bright red cup full of delicious cappuccino and small dish of miniature marshmallows. Ah, the name made sense now! I thought they were a very sweet gesture of service and a nice change from the usual pretzels. But this was no ordinary dish of marshmallows.

The owner then leaned over my table to light a small tea candle on my table. Then she handed me a small pick with a plastic cake topper and instructed me to roast the marshmallows on the tea candle. I was taken aback in a very good way. This was by far the most adorable thing I'd seen in Korea (and mind you, this is the land where even the cows you're about to eat are smiling down at you from a signboard and even the socks depiciting poop (똥) sport a sh*t-eating grin - see what I did there?).





Honorable Mentions
When my Mom visited Korea, I told her about service. At first she was confused but soon embraced it as many a waygookin has. She experienced some serious service when picking up a treat at Paris Baguette. Upon checkout, the clerk handed her an entire loaf of bread! A whole loaf!

This one doesn't really count as service, which is why it is an honorable mention. Shannon and I popped into the newly opened Olive Young store after our Pancake Adventure to pick up a few cosmetic necessities. I didn't need anything so I purused while she did some actual shopping. After paying, however, she discovered a big green box in her bag along with purchases. The box contained a purse size tube of delicious smelling peach lotion, a face mask, a sample of something, and an entire pack of wet wipes. It was a pretty well-sized gift box of things I could actually use. So of course I had to shop some more to get my very own green box of goodies and 30,000\ later, I had one in tow (along with Aveeno lotion, eyelash curler pads, eyemakeup remover, and Werther's originals). Not really service because it was expected but nice and still free!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fear the Bathroom!

As a kid, I was a cookie-peddling, patch-earning, sash-sporting Girl Scout. Made it through a few years as a Brownie and a year (I think) as a Junior Girl Scout. The other girls always outsold me, mainly because I didn't care if I got that crappy stuffed lion in the Girl Scout uniform for selling 500 boxes of Thin Mints. However, I did attend the occasional troop "camping trip" at Camp Shawano. I call it "camping" because we always stayed in cabins. Not all cabins were alike, though. Bird's Nest was very nice with indoor bathrooms and a cute web layout. The big cabin was fully equipped with all modern amenities including bunk beds and giant kitchens. However, my first camping excursion as a young Brownie was to the Jack Frost cabin - the most bare-bones facility available. I remember 3 distinct things from that trip: 1) We stayed in the heatless cabin on the coldest night of the year. The building is appropriately dubbed. 2) My troop leader thought it was super clever to have us use our outdoor girl scout "skills" to find breakfast. This entailed a bunch of short 3rd graders jumping to snatch mini cereal boxes off of tree branches. Yeah, she tied them up there and made us hunt for Fruit Loops. 3) Latrines. I hate latrines. They smell like Porta-Potties except worse because they never move. They smell of stale urine and feces-ridden dirt. It was awful. That smell is so distinct and so horrid I've done my best to avoid it. I've been successful in this attempt, until Korea.

Fresh, hand-picked Corn Pops



Koreans don't drink water in the quantity that Westerners do. At home, I drink a lot of water and I'm used to having my super-sized water glass refilled about 7 times when I eat out. In Korea, however, we are given cups that belong in a Play-Skool kitchen that are hardly ever refilled and requests for such refills are looked at as somewhat strange. Anyhow, I keep a 2 liter water bottle on my desk at school. I also enjoy a few cups of coffee in the morning to get me started. Both of these habits force me to do the one thing I dread most in the day: use the school bathroom.

The first time I stepped into the bathroom nearest my classroom my nose twitched and my brain sent messages to me saying "ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!" Why was the message so urgent? So dire? Then I remembered. I harkoned back to that day at Camp Shawano. That cold, cold day on the outskirts of Lexington after I had hunted down my tiny box of sugary cereal. And then breakfast ended and I had to do the unthinkable: go to the latrine.

I returned to the present gagging, and reluctantly opened the stall door, praying that I could just hold it until I got home. But home was six hours away. Too long. Far too long. So I sucked it up and choked through the ordeal, hoping I could make the one last fresh breath I took outside last longer. It couldn't and was forced to breathe in the stale, putrid air emanating from the pink-tiled room. It seemed like an eternity but once it was over, I bolted out the door and washed my hands in the sink outside of my classroom. Thank the gods for that extra sink.

The smell is the worst part. I thought. The school bathroom and I became acquainted back in August, when the air was still humid and suffocatingly hot. The situation got even worse as winter descended upon Chosen. Then the time came when I was forced to used the bathroom in winter. And then, the days of Jack Frost revisited me, not just that wretched smell but the cold. Oh the cold! Once again, I shot back in time to that long-haired girl nestled in a thin Ariel sleeping bag on the cold, hard floor of that damned cabin. One juice box too many forced her from the little warmth she gleaned from her Disney burrow, out into the freezing cold air to the wooden outhouse, that stupid latrine.



And I was back in the Daesung restroom, trying in vain to not breath in the toxic-smelling air. I could see my breath as I exhaled. How could a room inside be so cold? Now this dreaded experience not only required jumping into the dreaded odor but entering into a meat locker. These tribulations now make me watch my water with Arrakeen precision, as every sip pushes me closer and closer to that dreaded, freezing cold latrine. Unfortunately today was a day when I didn't watch the water closely enough (I'd be a terrible Fremen) and had to venture into the arctic realm that is the Korean school bathroom.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Lunchtime is Saved!

As indicated by a few previous posts, I really loathe lunchtime at Daesung Elementary. Not that I oppose lunch or Korean food but that the food was just usually really bad. The boiled octopus and more-bones-than-meat dishes outnumbered the curry and mandu days by way too many.

Yesterday we had the much-adored salad and bulgogi. Which was fine - it was good. Today, however, we had japchae noodles with a 찜닭 type chicken dish, finished off with mandarin oranges. It was fantastic! My coteacher then told me we would be paying more for our lunches this year, as the quality of food is going up. This was the second best news I've had all day!!! (The first best was that we now have an espresso machine in the English classroom. WIN!)

So I am happy to report that I will no longer have to dread slogging down the stairs to the cafeteria to consistently meet disappointment upon disappointment served up as my lunch. Though the prison trays are the same, the food no longer tastes like it's from a penitentiary (or at least what I imagine jail food to taste like). The small victories are the best, sometimes.

The Dreaded Sink Shower

More brilliant Korea comics at ROKetship on Facebook
There is nothing like waking up in the morning, groggy-eyed and irritable, stumble to the shower and let the hot water soothe your tired eyes and slowly wake you up. I love a nice shower. However, there is a slight complication to this matter in Korea: my bathroom is my shower.

My very own sink showa!
In order to take a shower, I must turn on the sink, wait for the water to heat up, then turn a knob on the side of the sink to divert the water to the shower head on the wall. Then the water sprays all over the floor. I, and many others, must wear shower shoes in my own bathroom to avoid slipping and busting my butt. The worst is when I go into the bathroom with socks on, forgetting that I recently took a shower. Wet socks is a very unpleasant feeling! I also wear the shower shoes to avoid the horrendous cold of the tile floor. In Korea, the heat is radiant, it comes from the floor. This heating system is not extended to the bathroom so, needless to say, the bathroom gets really, really cold.

I'm quite used to the whole sink shower routine now. It works fine. It does its job. I am just not looking forward to one of those days when I forget to turn off the divert knob and I get a surprise shower that ruins your freshly done hair and makeup (just like my Mom did when she came to visit). It happens to the best of us. The fateful moment is lurking out there somewhere. A real shower is something I am eager for when I return to the US - a curtain and a dry bathroom floor is all this waygook desires. And maybe a burrito. Oh sink shower, how you torture me!

Pedicures in Daegu: Biggest Disappointment Ever

Note: this post contains lots of girly details so if you're male and weak skip this post. :)

Rainy days and months of winter boots make this girl eager for a pedicure. Despite my utter fear of feet, I actually enjoy pedicures because of the whole shiatsu chair/leg and foot massage/exfoliation that goes into it. In Lexington, I pay about $25-30 for a pedicure. They are always great and I consistently leave feeling thoroughly pampered. There's nothing like sticking your hooves into a warm bath of water after a long week or just for the heck of it. So, after a pretty nasty winter we felt we deserved to treat ourself. So we set out to find a pedicure place in Daegu and relax a bit.

There's not exactly a dearth of nail shops in the city and there's one street downtown (one alley over from Lazy Diner, away from Cell Phone Street) that hosts about 10 such shops. We peered through the windows hoping to spot a shop with nice pedicure chairs while we froze in the Daegu winter temps. We looked into a few places and all of the prices seemed roughly the same. So we chose a particular shop that seemed decently trafficked and sat down in the 2 chairs in the rear of the shop.

Interior view of the shop from the chairs in the back. The guy on the bench kept saying he had to "go pee" every time we asked him a question. We are certain he was making out with his girlfriend (pictured next to him) in the back of the shop. I know this due to the unusual amount of sparkles around his mouth. After I inquired about this he promptly got up, declared his need to urinate, and walked out of the shop.
The baths underneath the chairs looked less-than-clean (I know, Mom, onycomycosis) but we had already committed. The price they quoted was 23,000 won. 20 bucks for a pedicure isn't bad but isn't exactly cheap, as everything else seems to be in Korea. I handed over the nail polish I brought (so I can do my own touch-ups and come on, it's so much more sanitary). Then they kind of rinsed my feet off then proceeded to remove my old nail polish. No soaking in a lovely warm bath. Then the nail girl did some trimming and jumped right into painting. My friend and I were both shocked and disappointed. NO massage!? NO scraping off all the dry skin!? This isn't a pedicure! I could've done it at home for free!

This highly unflattering but appropriate picture is my "I don't wanna pay 23,000 won for this crap!" face.
The girls at the shop then insisted we purchase 3,000 won flip flops (we were sporting Ugg-esque boots that night) as to not ruin the polish. We reluctantly acquiesced as we didn't want to ruin the most expensive color change we'd ever had. We kind of overstayed our welcome in the shop waiting for our polish to dry and, frankly, because we didn't want to enter the frigid air in flip flops. After about 30 or so minutes of drying we sighed and gathered our things to head out into the cold. All night we bitched about the unfortunate 26,000 won we seemingly wasted on what was supposed to be a relaxing and wonderful experience.

Shannon before we headed out into the frightful weather. Note the flip flops!
If anyone can tell me where one can get a real pedicure in Daegu please, please, please let me know! Otherwise, I would generally steer clear of pedicures here for fear of supreme disappointment.

The Quest for Waffles

Korea is very different from the United States. Before embarking on my year-long stint abroad, I considered what things from home I would miss the most. Many of the things I knew would be missed were food. The item that stood out the most was brunch.

I am a brunch person to the core. This is a well-known fact. I confessed to my friend that, "I don't consider myself a girly girl but I freaking love brunch." Brunch is the meal of champions, the saviour of hangover sufferers across the world, and a brilliant excuse to commence day drinking. Whether your plate of choice be the ever-heavy but oh-so-satisfying Eggs Benedict or the classic, refined standard of French toast, brunch is the by far the best meal of the day.

My delicious pancakes!

We sipped our coffees and chatted away until a server emerged from the kitchen with our meal. They looked fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. We both had a moment. The first bite was pure heaven. I mean, of course I've had better pancakes before but these were pretty darn good and they were beautiful, too. They were fluffy and warm and buttery and delicious. The fresh-cut strawberries and bananas on top added the perfect fruity sweetness to the mix and the ricotta, well, it's ricotta, you can't go wrong. There were also blueberries, but they were fresh out of the freezer. They were nice on their own but the extreme cold didn't mix so well with the rest of the entree. All together, I was extremely happy.

Shannon's grilled cheese french toast.
Then it was Shannon's turn to sample her brunch selection. Her plate also looked beautiful, with almonds and walnuts scattered across the artistically stacked french toast pieces. It looked as if this was also a stuffed french toast. "Oh is that cream cheese?!" we wondered. As Shannon took her first bite she confirmed that it was not, in fact, cream cheese but real cheese. Cheese cheese. It seems her french toast was more of a monte cristo than a the sweet dish to which we Americans are so accustomed. However, it was still delicious.

A pretty fine cappuccino.
As we polished off the last morsels on our plates, we gave each other that look of supreme satisfaction. "We are coming back here. Soon." Thank you, daily bread, for allowing me to sate my appetite for brunching, a luxury every girl requires. I also noticed the menu offered Eggs Benedict, some delicious looking waffles, dongkatsu (pork cutlet), and a few other non-breakfast items. All entrees ran between 7,000-10,000, I believe. Their coffee is also excellent - decently priced (my cappuccino was 3,500 won), nicely sized, and well-made. daily bread, I will return. And I am bringing friends.

A Visit to Ye Dental Clinic: I'm Cavity Free!

I love the dentist. Anytime I tell people this they gasp and call me a freak. I am comfortable with that assessment. Why would anyone like the dentist? All those horrible sounds of drilling, the taste of latex gloves in your mouth, being asked questions you obviously cannot answer, being unable to hide from the fact that you don't floss as often as you should, and the suspense of whether or not you'll have to return for a more invasive procedure. But I enjoy the feeling of leaving the dentist with super clean teeth and the knowledge that little sugar bugs (as my lifelong hygienist, Pam, always called them) weren't feasting on my enamel. Plus, I always get a free toothbrush (and in the hey-days, a free McDonald's french fry coupon)!

As the 6-month marked edged closer and closer, I knew it was time I find a good dentist in Korea for my bi-annual cleaning and polishing. Finding doctors in Korea can be rough, as the language is different and I honestly don't have a clue how insurance works here. However, I consulted a friend who had quite a bit of dental work done in Korea as to where she went. She suggested the Ye Dental Clinic in Bangwoldang. Right downtown, very close to me. Their website also boasts that they offer "perfect English, ask for Betty when you call." So I called and I asked for Betty. She is a very sweet girl who helped me make an appointment. Very easy process. Then I eagerly awaited my dentist appointment.

The day finally came for me to get my teeth checked out. So after a brilliant meal at daily bread (brunch from heaven!) I made my way over to Bangwoldang exit 12. The map on the website is a bit confusing but when I called the clinic (and after a bit of confusion because it was Betty's day off) they communicated that the office is located in the Citibank building. That made everything much easier (this is also because I was standing in front of the Citibank building). I hopped on the elevator to the 6th floor and when the doors opened I thought I had entered a spa. The reception area hosts a small pond with rocks and the area feels very calming - excellent for those with dental jitters.

Check-in was quite fast, as well. I filled out a single sheet of paper (this is totally unheard of as a new patient anywhere - I was pleasantly surprised) and asked to wait for the hygienist. After about 10 minutes, my name was called and I went back for x-rays. This was a painless process that only required me to bite down on a small plastic piece as the machine swiveled around my head - omnixray! I was then led into the exam room and sat down in the very modern dental chair, fully equipped with its very own TV (set to CNN for the waygook) and automatic water fountain. They took my picture with a fancy Nikon and proceeded to take more shots of my teeth. I then waited a few minutes for the dentist to see me.

Dr. Phillip Joo entered the room with a smile on his face and was shocked by my "annyong haseyo." I'm used to that by now. We chatted for a bit about my teeth - he pulled up pictures of my mouth on the computer and used an interactive program to draw lines on my teeth indicating where fillings are and the picture orientation. He then asked, "Do you ever think your teeth are whiter than others?" I responded, "Well, sometimes." I think this means my teeth are in excellent shape and a good shade of white to boot. I am very vigilant about my dental hygiene so they absolutely should be. Anyhow, he then confirmed my state of excellent dental health and yielded the floor to the hygienist.

The cleaning, or scaling as they call it in Korea, costs 70,000 won. Which is fine for me, but may be high for some. But this price also included all of my x-rays and a dental exam. The session began with a cup of liquid I was asked to swish around in my mouth. After a few seconds, my mouth started to tingle then went entirely numb. It was anesthetic. This is a great relief for many with dentist phobias, as you really can't feel much while they scale your teeth. After my mouth was thoroughly numbed, the hygienist leaned back the chair and draped a strange towel with a circular hole in it over my head. I couldn't see what was going on - another relief for those with fears of seeing all of those crazy metal instruments. After about 20 minutes, the process was over. I rinsed and spat a few times and took my still numbed mouth out into the reception area to settle up. As a "souvenir," they gave me an adorable little folio with the pictures of my mouth. I can now see exactly how weird the inside of my mouth looks at all times (but at least its straight and sparkly)!

With my lovely booklet of teeth photos! I spared the actual teeth photos. Apologies for the terrible quality - PhotoBooth!
Overall, this was an excellent experience. The staff is extremely friendly and can communicate in enough English to understand what is going on. The office looks brand new and they have top-of-line equipment. I definitely recommend the clinic to anyone - waygook or Korean - but the office is especially helpful for those of us English speakers out there. The only downside is that I didn't get that free toothbrush I always look forward to. Oh well, maybe next time.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sick in Korea

Being sick is never fun. This is especially true when you get sick in a country with a language different from your own. It's also rather rough in a country that doesn't appreciate the healing powers of Campbell's soup. Last Tuesday was graduation at Daesung Elementary and the last day of school for me (well, deskwarming not included). I attended the very odd graduation ceremony where the kids were clad in jeans and hoodies (instead of the compulsory Sunday best I'm accustomed to) and the ceremony feature a strangely risque dance performed by the graduating class. (The dance also included a couple boys decked out in pigtails and rouge.) Following the "much to do about nothing" (as my Mom says) graduation, the 6th grade teachers and I headed out for a celebratory end-of-the-year lunch at The Outback Steakhouse (their choice, not mine).

Earlier that morning, I felt those initial pangs of sickness and messaged my friend Shannon that I must fight this! So I thought I was doing fine until we went to Outback and faced an hour wait. So what was the solution? Play ping pong! I am a terrible ping pong player (I forgot that ping pong balls were invented for a sport other than beer pong) but decided to play with the teachers anyhow. As I started to get the hang of the game, I felt much better and thought I'd finally bested this sickness. So we sat down for a meal of spicy beef quesadillas, baby back ribs, and kimchi fried rice (I don't know why Outback serves this), I made sure I did not participate in the usual sharing-everything-including-soup habit so common in Korea to ensure no one else got what I was coming down with. As I munched on the delicious free bread and piece or two of quesadilla it hit me like a ton of bricks - I was officially sick. After lunch, I bowed out of the rest of the evening with the teachers and caught a cab home. I drank a bunch of orange juice, in hopes the vitamin C surge would stave off the sickness getting worse.

I put myself straight to bed and, after a restless night of hold and cold flashes, awoke in severe pain with the most swollen tonsils I've seen. I forced myself to wake up some, throw on clothes, and mope down the road to a taxi to Dongsan Hospital. Dongsan Hospital has an international clinic with an excellent English-speaking staff. (Phone numbers for the clinic are available through the previous link.) They help you around the hospital, showing patients how to pay and navigate the hospital. So I saw an ENT Weds/Thurs/Fri and was prescribed a bunch of pills and 3 IVs - one for hydration (this one took 5 hours!!!) and 2 for antibiotics.

Many days of rest and pills made me feel a lot better. The efficiency of the Dongsan clinic was impressive - it is, after all, a well known university hospital. I've visited other small clinics (where the English was rather sparse) and was sent off with more pills than I knew what to do with. These treatments never made me feel any better. However, though the consultation fees are more expensive at Dongsan, if you have a real problem I suggest visiting the clinic. Don't keep settling for mediocre treatments if you are sick, make sure you treat yourself well and get the care you need. The Suk doctors can cure you! Plus, if you're employed through EPIK you can enjoy the benefits of your medical insurance (you know, that deduction they take out of your paycheck every month?).

And, although a week too late, I did find Campbell's chicken noodle soup at Homeplus! Stay well everyone!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

I'm Published! Well, sort of...

UPDATE: Daegu Pockets has fallen into a bit of a debacle, with the involved parties in a bit of a tiff due to creative differences. I now write and edit for their new publication, In Daegu. It's a newspaper rather than a  magazine but still provides oodles of info on life and news in Daegu and the surrounding area. Check it out!

I'm a bit of a foodie. I love reading about food, trying new and exotic cuisines, and most of all, talking and writing about what I've discovered. Normally these musing are kept to emails and chat with friends. However, I finally got the chance to send my opinions out into the circulated world. The Daegu expat magazine, Daegu Pockets, sent out a request for entertainment writers a few months ago; I eagerly accepted the challenge. My first assignment was promised around October. I waited and waited for details on the Filipino restaurant I was to review. Silence. Nothing on any email account nor Facebook inbox.

Then out of the blue in late December, I got the email. I was to review a Filipino restaurant and market in town. Well, the first assignment was quite a doozie but I'm happy with how everything turned out. Rather than tell the story here, I provide the link to my first published article in the February 2011 issue of Daegu Pockets. It's on page 20.

http://www.daegupockets.com/pdfs/Feb2011.pdf

I hope you enjoy! Bon Apetite!

(Also - critiques are welcome! Anything to improve my writing. Also, stay tuned for my second restaurant review appearing in the March issue!)

3 Perfect Purchases

I have unfortunately purchased quite a few things in Korea. I mused to a friend one day how many things are now packed into my tiny apartment and the wealth of stuff I've accumulated in a mere 5 months. However, there are 3 things I bought in Korea which have made my life pretty fantastic and much more comfortable.

The three major elements of my morning routine.
1) A French Press
I am a coffee drinker. I adore coffee and unfortunately cannot start off a day without it. Granted Korea boasts a wealth of coffee shops with pretty excellent offerings, however none of these are located in my area nor on my way to work. Another strange aspect about Korean coffee shops is that they are open late and not early (most have operating hours between 10am-12am). So even if one were to crop up near my home, it wouldn't do me much good on my 8:15 walk to work. Some friends in Korea have purchased actual coffee makers. I considered this but then remembered the dearth of electric outlets in my house, let alone my kitchen. I currently have a 4 plug power strip setting in the gap between my fridge and washing machine (it's safe, I promise!) 2 spaces in which give life to my boiler and refrigerator (these never come unplugged) while the remaining 2 slots alternate between my washing machine, kettle, and toaster, and microwave. Needless to say I didn't need another thing to plug in. One day at HomePlus, I was browsing the kitchen section when I happened upon the teapot section. Lo and behold there stood a french press! There was actually a fairly wide selection, from fancy to humble. Needless to say, I sprung for the more humble model - a 4-cup glass cylinder with a handle and your basic french press metal apparatus for brewing. The press set me back a mere 12,000 won. Instead of the saccharin instant coffee of which Korea is so fond of, I may now begin my mornings with freshly pressed coffee. The clean-up is easy, no filters need. Just grounds, a spoon, and hot water from my provided kettle.
Note: I purchased a 3-lb pack of ground Starbucks Breakfast Blend coffee from Costco in early October. I am now on my third pound bag. The box cost 30,000 won, which is pretty normal for coffee, especially Starbucks. You can also buy ground coffee at HomePlus, Emart, Starbucks cafes, and other coffee shops around Korea. It just depends on your taste!

The body pillow on top of my very large heating pad (yes, all in polka dots).
2) An Electric Blanket/Giant Heating Pad
Though Daegu is known as the hottest city in Korea (and it does become stiflingly hot in the summer months), it also drops to rather low temperatures in the winter. Though most Korean houses are equipped with radiant heat from the floor, as mine is, it still gets quite chilly. Unfortunately for awhile, my heater didn't work so well. So to fix this issue, I acquired a heated pad that covers my ENTIRE mattress. My mother was kind enough to purchase this and a space heater for me from HomePlus when she visited. The pad has heat settings from 1-6 and a 3 is hot enough. It warms up my bed rather nicely at night though it makes getting up in the morning a bit more difficult. However I must admit this wonderful purchase has been a mixed blessing, as I have a tendency to come down with the "vacation coffee maker complex" (Did we turn off the coffee maker before we left for vacation?). Of course you always do turn off the coffee maker, sometimes it drives you crazy until you know for sure.

3) A Body Pillow
As I've mentioned a few times, my apartment is tiny. Really tiny. And in being tiny, it can't fit a couch nor futon nor easy chair nor bean bag chair nor any comfy furniture whatsoever. My bed pretty much serves as my easy chair cum couch cum well, bed. However, my bed is situated in the corner of 2 wallpapered concrete walls. In the winter, concrete gets cold and, in general, concrete in uncomfortable. I decided to rectify this situation by purchasing a body pillow. Yet again, I found this beautiful pillow at HomePlus. In all, it ran me about 30,000 won for the pillow and cover. It transforms my cold, concrete wall into a comfy, cozy reading nook.

I just came to the conclusion that all three of the best purchases I've made in Korea came from HomePlus but it is a one-stop ginormous shopping center. This also means that these things are widely available to anyone coming to Korea!